BAHIA BLANCA - REVOLUTION - Darwin Slept Here: Discovery, Adventure, and Swimming Iguanas in Charles Darwin's South America - Eric Simons

Darwin Slept Here: Discovery, Adventure, and Swimming Iguanas in Charles Darwin's South America - Eric Simons (2009)



The Gaucho Lifestyle

Upon reading my passport, & finding that I was a Naturalista, his respect & civility were as strong as his suspicions had been before. What a Naturalista is, neither he or his countrymen had any idea; but I am not sure that my title loses any of its value from this cause.


THE NORTHERN INDIANS OF ARGENTINA, to Darwin’s European eyes, weren’t savages. But they were dangerous, especially for wandering collectors, because while Darwin was traveling through, Argentina was in the process of a genocidal campaign of eradication led by the capable General Juan Manuel de Rosas. The general was forty years old and had spent a lifetime accumulating land and power across the Argentine plains. “He will be a Catholic and a military man,” his father told the chaplain at his baptism, and this prophecy proved eerily accurate—though not, likely, in the manner intended. Rosas expanded his ranching empire through a series of savvy business ventures, and he exercised rigid control over his workers—Argentine biographer Pacho O’Donnell suggests Rosas had a deep-seated fear of anarchy—whom he then recruited into militias. His courage and discipline inspired ferocious loyalty in his followers, and in 1829 he became governor of Buenos Aires. In 1833, no longer governor but still powerful, he set off to conquer the indigenous people of Argentina. The fighting was shockingly bloody and brutal, inspired on the Argentine side by a manifest destiny-like belief that the land was needed for white settlers and cattle ranches. The Indians, a roughly unified alliance of major tribes from across southern Argentina and Chile, fought a guerilla campaign out of the Andean foothills.

Darwin observed the ensuing wars firsthand. In August 1833, a few months after his first Tierra del Fuego trip, Darwin had the Beagle drop him off in Northern Patagonia, in a town called Patagones, where Rosas had secured a coastal strip that made it safe for Darwin to travel overland without fear of an Indian attack. Rosas himself had set up camp on the banks of the Colorado River, eighty-five miles north of Patagones. Darwin determined to visit the camp and then make his way overland to Buenos Aires. While the Beagle worked its way up the coast toward the port town of Bahia Blanca, Darwin recruited horses and a guide to take him north, into the pampas. To his good fortune, bad weather delayed the trip and allowed five gauchos to join the party. The benefit wasn’t just protection. Darwin would get the full gaucho experience, and he would later be quite proud of himself for living the free-roaming, red meat and open country lifestyle.

On the first night, one of the gauchos spotted a wandering cow, and soon a barbecue was being prepared. “We here had the four necessaries for life ‘en el campo’,” Darwin wrote. “Pasture for the horses, water (only a muddy puddle)—meat—& fire wood. The gauchos were in high spirits at finding all these luxuries, & we soon set to work at the poor cow.”

Darwin and his new friends shared the meat, spread their saddles on the ground, and went to sleep under the open sky—true cowboy style, and a mode of traveling that stirred something in the English naturalist. “There is high enjoyment in the independence of the Gaucho life,” he recorded, “to be able at any moment to pull up your horse and say here we will pass the night. The death-like stillness of the plain, the dogs keeping watch, the gipsy-group of Gauchos making their beds around the fire, has left in my mind a strongly marked picture of this first night, which will not soon be forgotten.” It was a sentiment he would express often in the next few years.

Two days later, Darwin arrived at General Rosas’ encampment. On August 15, the great leader sent Darwin a message: He would be happy to meet the English naturalist.

“General Rosas is a man of an extraordinary character,” Darwin noted in his journal. “He has at present a most predominant influence in this country & probably may end by being its ruler.” In earlier editions of the published account, Darwin added, “which it seems he will use to its prosperity and advancement.” A small footnote appears in the 1845 edition: “This prophecy has turned out entirely and miserably wrong.”

Darwin needed Rosas’ help in traveling through the country. He wanted a passport and permission to use government horses to travel between checkpoints established by Rosas—as part of his campaign, Rosas had established twelve armed outposts, or postas, between his camp on the Colorado River and Buenos Aires, and Darwin intended to follow the trail left by these small forts back to the capital. He didn’t say much else about his conversation with Rosas, but he received both passport and permission “in a most obliging manner.”

“My interview passed away without a smile,” Darwin dryly concluded, declaring himself “altogether pleased with my interview with the terrible General. He is worth seeing, as being decidedly the most prominent character in S. America.”

It later turned out that even the fact of the meeting itself was useful. At the end of his long ride Darwin tried to enter the city of Buenos Aires only to find it blockaded by revolutionaries allied with Rosas. He was barred from traveling overland, and there were embargoes on all the ports—until Darwin mentioned his meeting with Rosas. Instantly, the leaders gave him permission to pass. “Magic,” Darwin wrote, “could not have altered circumstances any quicker.”

My interest was in culture more than politics. Rosas was the unofficial king of the gauchos, and Darwin had met with probably the world’s most powerful cowboy until Ronald Reagan. The general was famous for his feats of horsemanship, his traditional dress—he once called on the British minister to Buenos Aires in full gaucho regalia—and his reputation as a practical, no-nonsense man of action. With his downfall and eventual exile to England in the mid-1850s, gaucho culture lost its most visible embodiment. By the end of the century, as private landowners increasingly forced the gauchos to abandon their wandering lifestyle and settle on the ranch, the culture of plains-roaming, free-spirited, egalitarian nomads had all but vanished.

I wondered what that meant now. The gaucho endures in Argentina and Uruguay as a kind of tourist icon, something found on postcards in Buenos Aires. For reasons I never quite fathomed, it’s also the athletic mascot of my undergraduate alma mater, the University of California Santa Barbara. I was curious to find whether anything beyond that had actually survived. Was there anything to the gauchos today, except for a pleasing set of values, a historical idea, and a Zorro-masked mascot?


I took a bus to Bahia Blanca, the next town north of Rosas’ post on the Colorado River, and arrived at 3 A.M. I slept four hours on a bench in the bus terminal and then staggered downtown to see a city that had grown by leaps and bounds since Darwin visited and reported, “Bahia Blanca scarcely deserves the name of a village.” It was afternoon by the time I made it to the heart of the city, a leafy plaza surrounded by cafés and shops. In the middle of the plaza, old men sat around stone tables and played cards while families picnicked and young couples groped each other in the shade. Wandering down one street, I came to El Matrero—a veritable gaucho emporium. Leather saddles and halters, colorful ponchos, and paintings of romantic gauchos jammed the dark walls. Display cases full of maté gourds and silver knives took up all the space in the middle of the store. Everywhere I stood I felt in the way, bustled and pushed by busy store clerks searching for gaucho relics. The jostling pushed me toward the back of the room, where a wrinkled, silver-haired leather smith stood, smelling of leather and glue and working on a worn saddle blanket. He smiled as I approached.

“You put this under the saddle,” he explained in Spanish, holding up the edge of the blanket, “and tie a belt around the horse here. The buckle on the belt rubbed against this and broke the stitching.” He pointed out where the yellow stitches had snapped and poked a four-inch needle into the blanket.

I asked the man working the saddle what he thought. Was gaucho culture dead?

“Gaucho culture dead?” he said. “Noooo. In the countryside there still are gauchos, certainly. They have changed, of course. But they are still gauchos. Certainly.”

The array of gear behind the man looked a bit like the kind of stuff you’d find in one of the more interesting stores in San Francisco—lots of jangly, studded, leather. A rack of boleadores, one of the traditional hunting weapons of both the gauchos and the plains Indians, hung over his head. The bolas consist of two heavy, metal spheres or rounded rocks, about the size of a baseball, connected by a long leather strap. Hunters whirl the balls around their head and then throw them at the legs of animals, entangling the animal and tripping it so it can be finished off with a spear or knife. Darwin tried his hand at both the lazo(lasso) and the bolas, with less-than-perfect results. After riding hard, whirling the bolas around his head, he tossed them—and snared his own horse. The gauchos, he reported, roared with laughter. They’d seen all kinds of animals caught with the bolas, they teased Darwin, but they’d never seen a rider catch himself.

I asked the man in the saddle shop if he could use the bolas.

“Me?” he said, surprised at the question. “No. The gauchos use them. Not me.”

I picked one up, briefly, and was surprised at the weight of the metal ball. I put it back. The leather smith smiled and set aside his saddle to sip his maté.


In the front of the store, a flier advertised a performance of gaucho fo lklór ico dances that evening in the community center on the edge of town. A few hours later, a taxi driver dropped me on a small, dark street and pointed back at an unmarked building. The inside reminded me of my high school gymnasium. Concrete bleachers cascaded onto a smooth concrete floor, and folding tables and chairs clustered around the edges. A group of teenage girls operated a concession stand in the corner. I bought a soda from them, and one of the girls caught my accent. She asked where I was from. “And you came here for this?” she asked, incredulous.

The dancing started around 10 P.M. with a crowd-pleasing dance by the youngest troupe in attendance. Dressed in oversized gaucho duds or Spanish ranch finery, ten children tripped out under the lights to perform a simple partner dance. The boys wore huge baggy pants, knee-high leather boots, white long-sleeved shirts, and red kerchiefs and sashes. They covered up with tightly cut red, black, or brown jackets, like Spanish matadors. Most also donned the low, flat, black sombreros fancied by the gauchos. The girls, meanwhile, wore ornate long dresses and pulled their hair back and up. For the dance, both boys and girls raised their arms and moved around each other in stumbling circles, vaguely in time with the music and under direction of their coach, who stood alongside, waving to remind them of positions. One boy lost his red sash, which he kicked aside with a smile. Another boy and girl forgot their steps and excused themselves to stand and wait for everyone else to finish. The audience of several hundred maté-drinking family members and friends loved it. The kids trickled back out of the lights to enthusiastic applause.

I went in search of someone who could explain the dances that followed and found Paula Gil, a twenty-eight-year-old professional dance instructor from Bahia Blanca. She pointed me up to the top of the bleachers, where her girls-only troupe prepared for its performance later in the evening. Watching from above, we could see dancing couples circling each other. Every once in a while, the boy would stop dancing, turn his back to the girl, and start to clap in time with the music. The girl sashayed around him, working closer and closer, until she ended up right in front of him. They would split apart again and continue dancing.

The dances, Paula told me, represented a specific period in Argentine history, from about 1815 to 1870, and resulted from a blending of Spanish and Italian culture.

“Are many people interested in folklórico?” I asked.

“Of course more people do the tango,” she said. “It’s more erotic, more difficult. But this is the dance of the countryside.”

That reminded me of what the man in the gaucho store had said. “I’ve seen a few books that say that gaucho culture is dead,” I said.

“There are huge cities now,” she replied. “Buenos Aires, Córdoba, Mendoza. In the cities, yes. But in the villages, outside the city, the culture still remains important. The customs are entirely from the gauchos. It’s a time period that’s a part of our history, so people want to learn.”

Below us the dancers split apart, and the men started clapping. “This is an escondido,” Paula said, switching subjects to explain the dance. “One dancer can’t see the other. The other is hidden. So to help the other dancer find him, he makes noise.” The women circled in on their clapping partners, and everyone started dancing again.

Paula’s students performed later on. When they came back to sit down, I asked her about their stomping, clapping dance. “It was an escondido, right?”

“You’re learning!” she said, looking pleased. “You have to keep teaching these dances,” she said, looking on as the next group started. “They were forgotten through the last century, but people started to learn them and teach them again. Now we have to teach each generation.”

On stage, yet another group of kids negotiated the tricky footwork of the gaucho dance. The clock struck midnight, and I looked out over the crowd, still very much jumping. It looked like it might turn into a typical Argentine social occasion—which meant it would probably go until 5 A.M. I hadn’t slept since the four hours in the bus terminal, so I caught a ride back downtown from a pharmacist who had to get back to work. As we left, the live music had just started.


The next day I took a bus into the more rural mountains outside Bahia Blanca, following Darwin’s overland route. As I traveled, I pondered the gaucho dance, and I thought about Paula telling me that it was important to keep the old ways remembered. Argentines, at least in places like Bahia Blanca, seemed to be doing that for the gauchos. But what about the Indians? As I arrived in the small resort town of Sierra de la Ventana, I walked out to see if I could find out more about the people lamented by the Port San Julian historian, Pablo Walker, and others, as mostly forgotten.

There wasn’t much information out there. In Darwin’s time, the significant tribes in Patagonia included the Mapuche and Tehuelche. But the Mapuche were linked mostly with southern Chile, where they’d resisted colonization not just by the Chileans and Spanish, but by the Incas as well. Unconquered into the late 1800s, the Mapuche eventually were forced into a reservation system that still exists in Chile. The Tehuelche, meanwhile—the people encountered in Port San Julian by Magellan—were associated more with southern Argentine Patagonia, where a few thousand still live. These were the tall, powerful Indians generally mentioned by European explorers. But the northern Tehue lche, who differed linguistically from the southern groups, disappeared by the end of the nineteenth century, killed by the Spanish or absorbed into Mapuche societies.

Darwin, who encountered both northern and southern Tehuelche, had predicted a grim future for all the Indians, writing in his diary that at the rate Rosas’s extermination campaign was carried out, “in another half century I think there will not be a wild Indian in the Pampas North of the Rio Negro. The warfare is too bloody to last.”

The Indian wars didn’t act on Darwin’s mind the way slavery did, and he wasn’t a champion of indigenous rights. For one thing, although he sympathized with them, he still feared an attack. Almost all fireside conversations, he reported, eventually ended up in discussions of Indian raids. He had two trips outside of Bahia Blanca interrupted by scares, although both turned out to be false alarms.

When he got a chance to study friendly Indians, he was fascinated. “My chief amusement,” he wrote from one military camp, “was watching the Indian families as they came to buy little articles at the Rancho where I staid.” Rosas had numerous Indian allies, and so there were plenty of people for Darwin to observe. “The men are a tall exceedingly fine race,” he wrote approvingly. “Amongst the young women, or Chinas, some deserve to be called even beautiful.”


I asked for town history at the tourism information office in Sierra de la Ventana, and the woman handed me a thick three-ring binder. “This is all the history,” she said. The folder included “recent histories” of all the nearby towns, city maps, ecological studies, and park histories, even a list of references and a course layout from the city’s first country club. “All the history” didn’t include much about the Indians though. One document mentioned that the fertility of the valleys and protection of the mountains made Sierra de la Ventana an appealing place to shelter from Rosas’s raids, and also one great battle in the extermination war, on the plain near the town of Tornquist, where two hundred Indians were killed. Darwin commented on the battle in his own journal: “The Sierra de la Ventana was formerly a great place of resort for the Indians; three or four years ago there was much fighting there; my guide was present when many men were killed; the women escaped to the saddle back & fought most desperately with big stones; many of them thus saved themselves.”

When I had finished with the binder I returned it to the office and tried to find the town library. In a building next to the school, a middle-aged, slightly roundish woman with short black hair and glasses sat surrounded by translated bestsellers by Dan Brown, Michael Crichton, John Grisham, Stephen King, and Danielle Steel. We were interrupted every few minutes by schoolchildren in white lab coats needing help finding books.

Sara Bellabarba became animated when I asked about Indians. “It’s very difficult to tell the history of this place because we don’t have it,” she said. “There is very little about the indigenous people here. And about the war, it’s also difficult. I don’t agree with it, because we moved onto their land and they fought back. If someone invaded my house, there would be a battle.”

Darwin wasn’t inspired to act, but he despised the cruelty of the Indian wars. One soldier reported to him the “unquestionable fact, that all the women who appear above twenty years old, are massacred in cold blood.” Darwin, shocked, called such murders inhuman. “He answered me, ‘Why what can be done, they breed so.’” In other conversations, Darwin noticed that everyone believed the war just, “because it is against Barbarians.” He concluded in his journal, “Who would believe in this age in a Christian, civilized country that such atrocities were committed?”